If you weren’t an avid viewer of WKRP in Cincinnati during its original four-year run, you should have caught it in reruns. And if you didn’t do that, after you’re done giving yourself a swift swat on your own wrist, know that the line above was the coup de grace from the infamous Thanksgiving episode. Therein, station manager Arthur Carlson arranged to have the holiday birds dropped out of a helicopter as an advertising gimmick—the only problem being that domesticated turkeys fly about as well as pianos do. WKRP was known for solid comedy like that, but for other aspects as well. Back in the late 70’s, there weren’t a lot of true ensemble television shows out there, and there still aren’t a lot of shows that don’t follow any of their characters home at night. And most definitely, there aren’t many shows that ran for just four years and ended up so firmly planted in sitcom lovers’ affections.
The radio station WKRP played molasses-slow music for a molasses-slow older audience and didn’t make much dough doing it. That’s when hotshot programmer Andy Travis slid in, sporting some tight 70’s era pants and some even bolder ideas about what the new musical direction should be. Though it angered the gray-haired viewers, Travis made WKRP a rock-and-roll station. And its eccentric staff made it a place for comedy.
There was station manager Arthur Carlson, an incompetent who kept his job only because his mom owned the station. There was receptionist Jennifer Marlow (played by bombshell Loni Anderson), who also wore things memorably tight—her sweaters—and dodged suggestive passes about as skillfully as she did her job, and she did her job extremely well. There was the slimy salesman Herb Tarlek and his white shoes, DJ’s Johnny Fever and Venus Flytrap, program assistant Bailey Quarters, and the geeky and ever-bandaged newsman Less Nessman. In the best-case scenario of ensemble dynamics, each character was equally fun to watch, and even though we didn’t go home with them at night, we got to know them so well it almost felt like we did.
The opening credits feature the familiar theme song (with that lilting “I’m at WKRP in Cincinnatiiiiiii…”). The closing song, though plenty of people have tried to decipher its lyrics, actually contains no words at all—the vocals were what’s called a “scratch track,” which contains nonsensical filler noise that session musicians fill their recordings with to give a listener an idea of how it will ultimately sound with lyrics. WKRP producers liked the way that filler noise sounded, and the viewership’s deciphering debates suited them just fine.
Though the show’s ratings weren’t so stellar in the beginning, WKRP in Cincinnati caught on despite a time slot that switched around about as much as Jennifer switched sweaters. Nine years after the show left CBS, it came back to the air for a part-reunion, part-spinoff called The New WKRP in Cincinnati. Three of the original characters—Arthur Carlson, Herb Tarlek, and news director Less Nessman—came back for the ride.
When we think of radio stations these days, we think of WKRP. All who watched the show wanted to work at the fictional station, but our daydreams were practical—if we couldn’t land a job there, we’d at least work in the same building as them, so we could meet the station’s assorted lovelies and oddballs in the elevator.